Kim Kardashian has a reality-TV show and an app and an Instagram account with 54.5 million followers, but I must admit I’m stumped: What does she do, exactly? What is her talent? Wikipedia tells me that she is an American television and social-media personality, actress, socialite and model. On the acting front, her IMDb page lists 14 actress credits, but 125 credits as “Self.” Self-promotion does appear to be a skill; Kardashian herself is the ultimate vanity project. Consider that her big career project in 2015 was a book of selfies. Her image is ubiquitous, as are details about her life. I know an awful lot about this woman (Her inventive baby names! Her placenta in pill form!), yet can’t, off the top of my head anyway, list a single notable artistic accomplishment of hers. Sure, her abilities as a thespian were on display in her starring turn as the half-naked, facing-the-wrong-way motorcycle passenger in husband Kanye West’s video for Bound 2 – but that was two years ago, right?
Architecture’s most dramatic sacking of 2015 fell on Zaha Hadid, the famous British designer of grand swoops and blobs who was once a leading avant-garde figure. Her firm’s design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium was cancelled when its projected costs grew to ¥252-billion ($2.86-billion) – more than twice the original estimate. Hadid responded with a fit of pique, while her second-in-command, Patrik Schumacher, launched a you-just-don’t-get-it assault on their critics. Unusual and innovative forms have a place in architecture; they always have. But so does hitting a budget, and designing structures that can be built economically. The world needs no more custom-fabricated white elephants.
I am a Jonathan Franzen fan. I loved The Corrections, loved Freedom. Others may find his birding passion irritating; I admire it. I have found myself defending him on occasion. But it all came crashing down while listening to an episode of As It Happens on CBC Radio in October. During an interview about his new novel, Purity (which I haven’t read yet), he told a story about being asked (begged) during a book tour stop in Krakow to please do one extra interview, just one question for a radio interview. (As if anything meaningful can be accomplished with one question.) He agreed to take the question! And the interviewer asked about the meaning of the book’s title. “I’m at the point where it is physically a torment to be asked that question,” Franzen told the CBC. Poor guy! Being asked the same question repeatedly on a book tour by journalists who are interested in writing about his book (and, as a result, promoting it)! In case you’re wondering what transpired, he did deign to answer the question. What a trouper.
Some fashionable terms convey an illusion of power just by being invoked. Say the words “content creation,” especially with some eagerness, and you, too, can seem to be among the visionaries of our age, those who tirelessly push the box out of the envelope. But what is content creation but just making stuff, in a particular form? Writing words, organizing sounds, making images – that has been going on since people first put markings on rocks. It’s as sublime or as mundane as the results achieved, and gains nothing from being buzzed up with a phrase like “content creation.”
“Culture” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2014. But rather than that exposure impeding proliferation, its usage seemed only to spread this year – spread, in fact, like … bacterial culture.
If you don’t think Donald Trump is the most insufferable person of the year, you’re a MO-RON! Once upon a time, resort developers from across the world used to plunk down yuge – YUGE! – chunks of change for the right to use Trump’s name on their properties. But after his year of living racistly, who’s going to partner with him now? Soon-to-be-failed-presidential-candidate Donald Trump is what happens when a reality-TV star breaks through the fourth wall. So what if some of his biggest fans nowadays are in the Islamic State recruitment department? It’s a living.
What in the name of all that’s rap is Drake up to? Surely, if the man had an ounce of hip-hop integrity, he’d be in Los Angeles, in a mansion, surrounded by cronies and good-time gals. Occasionally, he’d emerge to declare, in a foul-mouthed tirade, that Canada sucked and Toronto sucked in a particular way. No such luck. We are cursed with the nicest rapper in the history of rappers. He’s a booster, he’s a big brother to every dude in Toronto. He’s a goody two-shoes, the insufferable epitome of mild-mannered niceness. Personally, I blame the Degrassi connection. After playing Jimmy Brooks, a basketball star left paralyzed after a school shooting, Aubrey Graham reinvented himself as Drake, but essentially stayed in the Degrassi culture of well-mannered, bourgeois behaviour. The unbearable boring Canadian-ness of it all. And, worse, one suspects it’s all a bit bogus. Drake almost never speaks to the Canadian media; doesn’t really rate us. And that long, long silence after two people were fatally shot at the after-party for his OVO Fest? Was he uncaring or just mentally constipated about being associated with violence? Probably the latter. He’s as preposterous as he’s cloyingly dull.
They say the definition of a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous. One of the sadder aspects of celebrity culture is the spectacle of people who have some degree of renown for their genuine accomplishments – those Olympic gold medals; that successful business – angling desperately to become known simply as themselves. Case in point: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Is it not enough that Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, has flown 70 different types of aircraft and commanded the International Space Station for five months in 2013? No, the man with one and a half million Twitter followers is determined to be a social commentator, author and popular musician, singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity while up there on the ISS, publishing an autobiography and a photo book once he arrived home on Earth and finally, last October, releasing Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can, an album partly recorded in space. The inevitable children’s book is forthcoming in 2016. Hadfield seems convinced that the papers really do want to know whose shirts he wears, but overexposure doesn’t begin to describe the problem. If the community of nations is spending billions sending people into space, surely it is for some greater whole than the sum of tweets they can send home.
In a year in which we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, we were confronted with the bothersome antics of another pop idol, Justin Bieber, the Auto-Tuned singer who lied to Billboard magazine when he said, “I want to veer away from this self-centred attitude.” In 2015, the adorable narcissist from small-town Ontario ventured on a well-orchestrated campaign of public contriteness – he is the unapologetic apologist – only to continue his boorish ways. Worse, his otherwise commendable album, Purpose, was marred by the mope and mewl of the single Sorry. Bieber, who already failed miserably at the gangster swagger Sinatra so easily exuded, proved himself incapable of matching the classy hurt romanticism of Ol’ Blue Eyes, too.
It has become a media ritual as annoying as it is inescapable: Every Monday morning, thousands of news sites publish what they each hope will be the most viral item of the day – a roundup of whatever John Oliver was complaining about the night before on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. “John Oliver destroys FIFA!” “John Oliver eviscerates Canada’s election!” “John Oliver tears the IRS apart and is so fierce that Americans may never be able to trust anyone ever again!” (Okay, that last one was hyperbole, but not by much.) Apparently, North Americans were all sheep before the comedian with the delightful British accent landed on our shores. But while Oliver is a funny, smart and well-paid comedian, he is not the societal messiah we’ve all been waiting for. His targets are easy, his observations are obvious and his rhetoric is just a shade above Dennis Miller’s, and still a notch below Jon Stewart’s. Here’s to a new year with fewer Monday-morning headlines ramming his brave brilliance down our throats.
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